Euros provide opportunity for England to shed nearly-men tag

England’s clear progress under Southgate can be measured in major tournaments.

In Summary

•So far so good — until the brutal reality kicks in that the common denominator in all was defeat. 

• England have a relatively favourable group alongside Serbia, Denmark and Slovenia.

England's manager Gareth Southgate with Harry Kane
England's manager Gareth Southgate with Harry Kane

Gareth Southgate’s England have become the masters of the missed opportunity and they enter Euro 2024 knowing history will not be so kind should the same fate befall them in Germany.

England’s clear progress under Southgate can be measured in major tournaments. The trick now is to try to win one this summer or risk being forever labelled as the nearly-men.

The days of humiliation under Roy Hodgson when England could not even get out of their group at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and were then embarrassed by minnows Iceland at the Euros two years later have been replaced by regular runs to the latter stages of the big events.

England may have lost to Brazil and drawn with Belgium in their two Wembley friendlies but they were essentially fact-finding missions designed to crystallise Southgate’s thoughts as he moves towards naming his 23-man squad for Germany.

Southgate still has his critics but the strong counterargument is that he has the best record of any England manager since 1966 World Cup winner Sir Alf Ramsey.

England reached a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years in Russia, the final at Euro 2020 and then lost to holders France in the World Cup quarter-final in Qatar in 2022.

So far so good — until the brutal reality kicks in that the common denominator in all was defeat. It still leaves a sense England could not quite cope with the pressure cooker atmosphere of the big occasion.

England are regarded as favourites for Euro 2024, sharing that status with France at the very least, as Southgate presides over a squad groaning under the weight of natural talent, which will be replicated by the burden of expectation when they kick off against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen on June 16.

All the logic says England can win. All the talent says England can win. All the history shows they still have to prove they can win.

If Southgate’s England fall short again, it will be deemed a deep disappointment in many quarters and outright failure in others. The time for hard luck stories and excuses has gone.

England’s record against major countries feeds into the narrative that they have everything to prove in Germany. England have played 24 games against teams ranked in the world’s top 10 since September 2016. The record is seven wins, 10 losses and seven draws.

Not hugely impressive but most things are in place for that to change in Germany.

They are third in the Fifa rankings behind Argentina and France. Hosts Germany are in transition and it remains to be seen if coach Robert Martinez can get the best out of Portugal’s talented squad. Spain may also be a threat further down the line.

England have a relatively favourable group alongside Serbia, Denmark and Slovenia. They will not cross paths with France until the semi-final, all being well.

This is a golden chance for England to win the major men’s trophy that has eluded them since 1966. It is certainly their best since the painful “what might have been” of Euro 2004 when a side packed with world-class talent lost on penalties to hosts Portugal in the last eight.

Where there is France’s Kylian Mbappe there is always danger, which is why all bets are off to an extent, but this England have most things going for them to win Euro 2024 - and it would be no surprise to me if they did.

An examination of the talent at Southgate’s disposal makes it easy to understand why many would regard an inability to do so this time as a failure. If England do not win, the court of public opinion will deliver a more unflattering, unforgiving, verdict than on previous near misses.

England are blessed with a reliable goalkeeper in Everton’s Jordan Pickford. They have two defenders of the highest class who are at home in elite company in Manchester City pair John Stones and Kyle Walker.

Declan Rice is a truly outstanding holding midfield player, who has looked worth every penny of the £105m Arsenal paid to West Ham United last summer, while team-mate Bukayo Saka is, along with Manchester City’s Phil Foden, a rare creative talent.

Manchester United’s 18-year-old Kobbie Mainoo looks like a timely arrival, ready-made for this England side despite his tender years and after only making one start. He could be the answer to Southgate’s questions around the make-up of his midfield.

And then we come to the two jewels in England’s crown — two players who have taken foreign soil by storm at club level this season.

Jude Bellingham is already one of the best players in the world in his position, which can be an orthodox midfield player or more often a number 10 capable of anything.

Harry Kane is England’s leader, an irreplaceable talisman who is the record goalscorer for his country and his former club Tottenham.

In Bellingham and Kane, Southgate has two stellar individuals who will be the envy of every other country at Euro 2024.

What could go wrong?

Injuries for a start. We have already seen how blunt England look without Kane and, while not an absentee on the same scale, goalkeeping resources are thin behind Pickford.

There are concerns over central defence, where Harry Maguire has looked vulnerable and lacking game time at Manchester United. No one can doubt his character — Southgate never does. But considering how he has battled through being marginalised by Erik ten Hag at Old Trafford, will he be targeted by top-class attacks?

Luke Shaw has developed into an outstanding left-back but is unlikely to play again this season, thus putting a question mark on his participation in Euro 2024. This would be a big blow.

Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell struggled against Brazil while other options are switching Kieran Trippier, 33 and currently injured, from right-back to left-back or perhaps Liverpool’s Joe Gomez.

If Southgate can get everyone fit, find a partner in midfield for Rice and solve how to get Foden more involved if he has to play off the flank, then England will take some beating.

This may be Southgate’s farewell as England manager. Win or lose, very few international managers get a fifth tournament without winning any of the previous four. And if England triumph, Southgate may even feel his work is done.

What is certain, given the talent England have and the experience of major tournaments boasted by so many of the squad, is that coming up short once more cannot be painted as anything other than desperate disappointment — and arguably a failure. Euro 2024 is now the time for England to deliver. And, in Germany, they can.